History of the Second World War: United Kingdom Military Series

Edited by Sir James Butler

The Mediterranean and Middle East: Volume 2

The Germans come to the Help of their Ally (1941)

By Major-General I. S. O. Playfair CB, DSO, MC, with Captain F. C. Flynn, RN, Brigadier C. J. C. Molony, Air Vice-Marshal S. E. Toomer CB, CBE, DFC


Her Majesty’s Stationery Office

Crown Copyright Reserved

The authors of the Military Histories have been given full access to official documents. They and the editor are alone responsible for the statements made and the views expressed.

Table of Contents


Chapter 1: The Plan for Holding the Desert Flank

The forces for the defence of Cyrenaica—The role of the 2nd Armoured Division—Evidence of increasing Axis forces—The formation of the Deutsches Afrika Korps—The Germans occupy El Agheila

Chapter 2: The Loss of Cyrenaica

The German advance begins—Reasons for the British reverse—General Rommel seizes his opportunity—The withdrawal from the Jebel—The part played by the air forces—Measures to safeguard Egypt—The first attempts to capture Tobruk—The work of the Inshore Squadron—Misgivings of the enemy’s High Command

Chapter 3: Malta under Attack

The place of Malta in Middle East strategy—The defence of Malta—The use of Malta for attacking enemy shipping

Chapter 4: Matapan and the Start of the Greek Campaign

The action off Cape Matapan—Attempts to concert plans with Yugoslavia and Turkey—The Yugoslav coup d’état—The Italian Offensive in Albania—Implications of holding the Aliakmon position

Chapter 5: The Campaign in Greece

Summary of the campaign—The withdrawal to the Olympus-Servia position—The withdrawal to Thermopylae—The decision to evacuate the British forces—The embarkation

Chapter 6: The Bombardment of Tripoli and the Passage of the TIGER Convoy

The plan to attack Tripoli—The bombardment—The results—The passage of the TIGER convoy

Chapter 7: The Loss of Crete

The British attitude to Crete—The German preparations—The loss of Maleme airfield—The Navy prevents the sea-borne landings—Further fighting and the decision to evacuate—The embarkation—Some aspects of the Greek expedition—The position of Dominion Forces in the Middle East

Chapter 8: The Desert Fighting in May and June 1941

Visit of General Paulus and the failure of the attack on Tobruk—The work of the Inshore Squadron—The British probing attack (‘BREVITY’)—Preparation for a British offensive (‘BATTLEAXE’)—Failure of ‘BATTLEAXE’

Chapter 9: The Revolt in Iraq

Rashid Ali seizes power—The siege of Habbaniya—Command in Iraq reverts to the Middle East—‘Kingcol’ crosses the desert—The capture of Falluja—The advance on Baghdad—Axis help to Iraq

Chapter 10: The Campaign in Syria

Fear of German control in Syria—Preparations and plans for the invasion—The campaign—The end of hostilities

Chapter 11: The Continued Reinforcement of the Middle East

The problem of the Army’s rearward services—The growth of the base—Methods of reinforcing the Royal Air Force—The beginnings of American aid

Chapter 12: Changes in the Organization and High Command

Air Chief Marshal Longmore’s recall and the problem of aircraft maintenance—The experiment with an Intendant-General—The creation of a Minster of State—General Wavell leaves the Middle East

Chapter 13: The Consequences of the German Attack on Russia

The threat from the north—Preventive action in Persia—Conflicting views on an offensive in the Western Desert—The problem of the enemy’s High Command—German plans after the conquest of Russia—German reinforcements

Chapter 14: The Struggle for Sea Communications (July–October 1941)

The position at sea after the fall of Crete—Reinforcements and supplies for Malta—The Italian E-boat attack on Malta—Further operations to supply Malta—The attack on the enemy’s sea communications

Chapter 15: The Growth of the Middle East Air Force (June–October 1941)

The need for expanding the air force—The implications of the projected expansion—Army cooperation—Air operations from mid-June to mid-October 1941

Chapter 16: The Final Campaign in East Africa

The situation after Amba Alagi—The operations in Galla-Sidamo—The capture of Gondar—The problem of French Somaliland

Chronology of Main Events from March to November 1941

Appendix 1: Text of the Armistice with Iraq, 31st May, 1941

Appendix 2: Hitler’s Directive No. 30, dated 23rd May 1941

Appendix 3: Agreement for the cessation of hostilities in Syria and The Lebanon

Appendix 4: Strength of the opposing Fleets during 1941

Appendix 5: A note on tanks, armour, and anti-tank guns

Appendix 6: Some particulars of British and enemy aircraft

Appendix 7: Arrivals of reinforcement aircraft, January to October 1941

Appendix 8: Principal Commanders and Staff Officers in the Mediterranean and Middle East

Appendix 9: Principal Italian and German Commanders and Staff Officers

Appendix 10: Operational Code Names



Vice-Admiral Sir James Somerville—HMS Renown and Ark Royal—The Bolzano attacked by Fleet Air Arm Swordfish, 28th March 1941—The battle of Cape Matapan, 28th March 1941—British troops disembarking at Piraeus—Piraeus on the morning of 7th April 1941—A rough landing ground in Greece—Greek transport on the move—The coast of Platamon—The Vale of Tempe—Thermopylae, from a captured German photograph—The Corinth Canal—Crete: ships on fire in Suda Bay—German parachute troops landing near Suda Bay—Maleme airfield, showing wrecked German aircraft—Admiral Cunningham, General Freyberg, and Vice-Admiral Pridham-Wippell—Crete: Askifou Plain from the north—Crete: Sphakia, where most of the British troops were taken off—Mast-head attack by the RAF against shipping in Tripoli harbour—Malta, showing Hal Far airfield—The bombing of Rutba Fort—Habbaniya airfield and the plateau on which the Iraqi troops deployed—Men of the Arab Legion and the debris of an Iraqi transport column—Floods along the banks of the Euphrates—Falluja and the bridge over the Euphrates—The grounds of the British Embassy, Baghdad—Warships off the Syrian coast—RAF Tomahawks in formation over the Lebanon—Syria: a rocky slope near Jezzine—Australians bridging the Litani near Merjayun—Air Chief Marshal Longmore, General Wavell, General de Gaulle, and General Catroux—Palmyra—Colonel Collet’s Circassian Cavalry at Damascus—A scene on the river Litani (the old Leontes)—Shell-fire during the Australian advance on Beirut—Broken bridge at the mouth of the river Damour—On board HMS Manchester, just after she had been struck by a torpedo—Malta: the Grand Harbour from seaward, showing the scene of the Italian attack of 26th July 1941—Ethiopia: bad going in the Lakes district—View on the road near Debra Tabor—View across the valley of the river Omo—Patriots crossing the Omo—Fantastic road up the Wolchefit barrier—Gondar: view at the foot of the Lower Daflecha

Most of the photographs are Crown Copyright and are reproduced by courtesy of the Imperial War Museum and the Ministries concerned. No. 4 is from the painting by Rowland Langmaid. For permission to reproduce Nos. 6, 14 and 29 the authors are grateful to the Australian War Memorial, Canberra; for Nos. 9 and 17 to the New Zealand War History Branch, Wellington; and for No. 12 to the ‘Topical’ Press Agency, Ltd.

Maps and Diagrams

1. The Mediterranean and Middle East theatre of war

2. Cyrenaica in March 1941

3. Central and Eastern Mediterranean

4. Lines of advance of General Rommel’s columns, April 1941

5. Malta, showing airfields in spring 1941

6. Fleet movements leading to the Battle of Cape Matapan

7. Battle of Cape Matapan: the night action

8. Greece and the Balkans

9. Northern Greece

10. Southern Greece and Crete

11. Maleme-Galatas area: situation on morning of 20th May

12. Positions of British warships sunk during the campaign in Crete

13. The route to Sphakia

14. Tobruk perimeter, April–June 1941

15. Bardia-Sollum area

16. Diagram of operation ‘BATTLEAXE’, 15th–17th June 1941

17. Syria and Iraq, mid-1941

18. Lake Habbaniya and the Ramadi-Falluja road

19. Falluja-Baghdad road

20. South-Western Syria, mid-1941

21. The crossing of the river Damour

22. Routes to the Egyptian Base Area, June 1941

23. Turkey and surrounding countries, mid-1941

24. Central and Western Mediterranean

25. Radius of action of aircraft from Malta in relation to Axis shipping routes: Summer-Autumn 1941

26. Ethiopia, April 1941

27. Galla-Sidamo, April 1941

28. The Gondar sector

29. The capture of Gondar, 27th November 1941